The Water Is Wide (song)
"The Water Is Wide" (also called "O Waly, Waly") is a folk song of English origin, based on lyrics that partly date to the 1600s. It remains popular in the 21st century. Cecil Sharp published the song in Folk Songs From Somerset (1906). It is related to Child Ballad 204 (Roud number 87), Jamie Douglas, which in turn refers to the ostensibly unhappy first marriage of James Douglas, 2nd Marquess of Douglas to Lady Barbara Erskine.
Themes and construction
The imagery of the lyrics describes the challenges of love: "Love is handsome, love is kind" during the novel honeymoon phase of any relationship. However, as time progresses, "love grows old, and waxes cold." Even true love, the lyrics say, can "fade away like morning dew."
The modern lyric for "The Water Is Wide" was consolidated and named by Cecil Sharp in 1906 from multiple older sources in southern England, following English lyrics with very different stories and styles, but the same meter. Earlier sources were frequently published as broadsheets without music. Performers or publishers would insert, remove and adapt verses from one piece to another: floating verses are also characteristic of hymns and blues verses. Lyrics from different sources could be used with different melodies of the same metre. Consequently, each verse in the modern song may not have been originally composed in the context of its surrounding verses, nor be consistent in theme.
The Water is Wide may be considered a family of lyrics with a particular hymn-like tune.
O Waly Waly (Wail, Wail) may be sometimes a particular lyric, sometimes a family tree of lyrics, sometimes Jamie Douglas, sometimes one melody or another with the correct meter, and sometimes versions of the modern compilation The Water is Wide (usually with the addition of the verse startingO Waly, Waly). Benjamin Britten used the melody and verses of The Water is Wide for his arrangement—which does not have the O Waly, Waly verse, yet is titled Waly, Waly. A different melody is used for the song When Cockleshells turn Silver Bells, also subtitled Waly, Waly. Yet another melody for O Waly, Waly is associated with the Lord Jamie Douglas lyric.
A key ancestor is the lyric Waly, Waly, Gin Love Be Bonny from Ramsay's Tea Table Miscellany (1724), given below. This is a jumble of verses from other lyrics including Arthur's Seat shall be my Bed (1701), The Distressed Virgin (1633) and the Scottish scandal ballad Jamie Douglas (1776).
Some though not all versions of Jamie Douglas have the first verse that starts 'O, Waly, Waly'. Andrew Lang glimpsed an earlier history:
From Ramsay's Tea Table Miscellany, a curiously composite gathering of verses. There is a verse, obviously a variant, in a sixteenth-century song, cited by Leyden. St. Anthony's Well is on a hill slope of Arthur's Seat, near Holyrood. Here Jeanie Deans trysted with her sister's seducer, in The Heart of Midlothian. The Cairn of Nichol Mushat, the wife-murderer, is not far off. The ruins of Anthony's Chapel are still extant.
Predecessors of The Water is Wide also influenced lyrics for other folk and popular songs, such as the modern version of the Irish Carrickfergus (1960s) and the American Sweet Peggy Gordan (1880). The Irish song Carrickfergus, shares the lines but the sea is wide/I cannot swim over/And neither have I wings to fly. This song may be preceded by an Irish language song whose first line A Bhí Bean Uasal ("It was a noble woman") matches closely the opening line of one known variation of Lord Jamie Douglas: I was a lady of renown. However, the content of the English-language Carrickfergus includes material clearly from the Scots/English songs not in any known copy of A Bhí Bean Uasal suggesting considerable interplay between all known traditions.
The modern The Water Is Wide was popularised by Pete Seeger in the folk revival. There have been multiple subsequent variations of the song, and several names—including Waly, Waly, There is a Ship, and Cockleshells—which use and re-use different selections of lyrics. The song Van Diemen's Land on the album Rattle and Hum by U2 uses a variation of the melody of The Water Is Wide. The song "When the Pipers Play," sung by Isla St. Clair on the video of the same name, uses the melody of "The Water is Wide."
Waly, Waly, gin Love be bonny
Tune for The Water is Wide
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- O Waly, waly, (a lament – "woe is me") up the bank,
- And waly, waly, doun the brae (hill),
- And waly, waly, yon burn-side (riverside),
- Where I and my love want to go!
- I lean'd my back into an aik (oak),
- I thocht it was a trustie tree;
- But first it bow'd and syne (soon) it brak (broke)—
- Sae my true love did lichtlie (lightly) me.
- O waly, waly, gin love be bonnie (beautiful),
- A little time while it is new!
- But when 'tis auld (old) it waxeth cauld (cold),
- And fades awa' like morning dew.
- O wherefore should I busk my heid (adorn my head),
- Or wherefore should I kame (comb) my hair?
- For my true Love has me forsook,
- And says he'll never lo'e me mair (more).
- Now Arthur's Seat
- Sall (shall) be my bed (burial place),
- The sheets sall ne'er be 'filed by me;
- Saint Anton's well sall be my drink;
- Since my true Love has forsaken me.
- Marti'mas wind, when wilt thou blaw (blow),
- And shake the green leaves aff the tree?
- O gentle Death, when wilt thou come?
- For of my life I am wearìe.
- 'Tis not the frost, that freezes fell,
- Nor blawing snaw's (snow) inclemencie,
- 'Tis not sic cauld (such cold) that makes me cry;
- But my Love's heart grown cauld to me.
- When we cam in by Glasgow toun,
- We were a comely sicht (sight) to see;
- My Love was clad in the black velvèt,
- And I mysel in cramasie (crimson).
- But had I wist (known), before I kissed,
- That love had been sae ill to win,
- I had lock'd my heart in a case o' gowd (gold),
- And pinn'd it wi' a siller (silver) pin.
- And O! if my young babe were born,:
- And set upon the nurse's knee;
- And I mysel were dead and gane,
- And the green grass growing over me!
The Water is Wide
Some popular lyrics for "The Water is Wide" are within the book Folk Songs For Solo Singers, though many versions have been printed and sung.
- The water is wide, I can-not cross o'er.
- And neither have I wings to fly.
- give me a boat that can carry two,
- And both shall row, my love and I.
- A ship there is and she sails the seas.
- She's laden deep, as deep can be;
- But not as deep as the love I'm in
- And I know not if I sink or swim.
- I leaned my back up against an oak
- Thinking it were a trusty tree
- but first it bended and then it broke
- Thus did my love prove false to me.
- O love is sweet and love is kind
- The sweetest flow'r when first it's new
- but love grows old and waxes cold
- And fades away like the morning dew.
Jürgen Klos traces the first verse to "I'm Often Drunk And Seldom Sober" (c. 1780), the second to "The Seamans leave taken of his sweetest Margery" (c. 1660), the third to "Oh Waly, Waly, Gin Love Be Bonny" (already 'old' when published in c. 1724), and the fourth to "Hey trollie lollie, love is jolly" (c. 1620.) He could not trace the melody before 1905.
The Water is Wide (Round)
: The Water is Wide
- I Cannot get over
- Nor have I Wings
- With which to-o-o fly
- O-o-h give me a boat
- That can carry Two
- We both shall Row
- My friend and I-i-I
(repeat twice in parts with one part higher than the other and then sing in round with group two beginning to sing at the word 'Nor')
The water is wide I cannot get o'er No wings have I No wings have I to-o fly Give me a boat That will carry two We both shall row, my friend and I.
Verse 2: As I look out across the sea a Bright horizon beckons me And I and called to do my best and be the most that I can be.
Another Version, from Australia:
The Voyage Home
The water is wide, I cannot get o'er
And neither have I wings to fly,
Build me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I.
I leaned my back up against an oak,
To find it was a trusty tree,
I found you true, love, when first you spoke,
‘tis true you are, and ever shall be.
Our love shines clearly against the storm,
Turns darkest night to brightest day,
Turns turbulent waters to perfect calm,
A blazing lamp to light our way.
Love is the centre of all we see,
Love is the jewel that guides us true,
No matter what, love, you'll stay with me,
No matter what, my love, I'll stay with you.
The water is wide, I cannot get o'er
And neither have I wings to fly,
Build me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I.
"O Waly, Waly" has been a popular choice for arrangements by classical composers, in particular Benjamin Britten, whose arrangement for voice and piano was published in 1948. John Rutter uses it for the Third Movement in his "Suite for Strings" (1973).
The tune is often used for the hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" by Isaac Watts. It is also the tune for John Bell's "When God Almighty came to Earth" (1987) and F. Pratt Green's "An Upper Room did our Lord Prepare" (1974). Additionally, Hal H. Hopson used the tune for his work "The Gift of Love". Hopson also wrote Christian lyrics to The Water is Wide, which are often performed by church choirs.
Classical singers who have recorded "O Waly, Waly" include Sir Thomas Allen (English baritone), Janet Baker (English mezzo-soprano), Ian Bostridge (English tenor), Sarah Brightman (English soprano), Alfred Deller (English counter-tenor), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (English tenor), Richard Lewis (English tenor), Felicity Lott (English soprano), Benjamin Luxon (English bass-baritone), Derek Lee Ragin (American countertenor),[Aksel Schiotz] (Danish tenor), Daniel Taylor (Canadian counter-tenor), Robert Tear (Welsh tenor), Frederica von Stade (American mezzo-soprano), Carolyn Watkinson (English mezzo-soprano), and Kathleen Ferrier (English contralto). The King's Singers have a setting combined with the famous cello solo from J. S. Bach's Suite no. 1 on their British Isles folk song album, "Watching the White Wheat".
The Library of Congress audio archives contain a recording of the American composer Samuel Barber singing this tune and accompanying himself on piano in a recital broadcast from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia on 26 December 1938.
"The Water is Wide" has also been recorded countless times, with popular renditions by June Tabor (1976 solo album, Airs and Graces), Angie Aparo, The Highwaymen, The Seekers, Peter, Paul and Mary (titled "There is a Ship"), Sheila Jordan (Lost and Found, 1989), The Cowboy Junkies, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Rangers, Joan Baez, Enya, Steeleye Span, Karla Bonoff, James Taylor, John Gorka, Daniel Rodriguez, Luka Bloom, Steve Goodman, Eva Cassidy, Rory Block and Tom Chapin.
The lyrics vary from period to period and from singer to singer.
The Kingston Trio released a version under the title "The River is Wide" in 1961. The New Christy Minstrels recorded this same melody in 1963 with entirely different lyrics, arranged by Randy Sparks and retitled "Last Farewell".
Sir Cliff Richard has a version on his 1982 album Now You See Me, Now You Don't.
Karla Bonoff recorded a version that is included on the 1991 soundtrack for the US television program thirtysomething and was used to conclude 2006 airing of episode 94 of the TV show "Alias (Season 5)".
French singer Renaud helped make the tune famous among French-speaking countries. He wrote pacifist lyrics to the song "La ballade nord-irlandaise" (the Northern-Irish Ballad) for his 1991 album Marchand de cailloux, evoking the troubles of Northern Ireland.
The American-born Taiwanese artist Leehom Wang included a rendition of this song on his 1995 debut album, Love Rival Beethoven.
American jazz artist Charles Lloyd recorded The Water Is Wide, a CD released in 2000 on ECM Records with Lloyd (tenor saxophone) John Abercrombie (guitar), Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (double-bass), and Billy Higgins (drums). The Charles Lloyd Quartet released another version of the song on the Mirror CD (2010), with Lloyd (tenor saxophone), Jason Moran (piano), Reuben Rogers (bass), and Eric Harland (drums).
Charlotte Church, the Welsh child soprano, recorded a popularised rendition of this song on her 2001 album Enchantment.
American jazz pianist Eyran Katsenelenbogen recorded this song on his album It's Reigning Kats & Dogs & Bogen, released in 2003.
Runrig, the Scottish Gaelic rock band, recorded this song for their first Access All Areas album (2001).
Masaaki Kishibe's 2008 album My Favorites includes a vocal-less fingerstyle acoustic guitar rendition, instead incorporating the vocal melodies into the guitar melodies. American pianist, John Laing features this song on his debut album Awakened and it features Brittany Benish on guitar.
It was used over the final scenes in Terence Davies' 1988 film Distant Voices, Still Lives as the characters disappear into the darkness.
The lyrics of the song are spoken, just before the assassination scene, by Jesse James' daughter in the 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
It was used as a musical motif throughout the 2001 film The Simian Line.
It was performed by Yukawa Shione as part of the festival in the 2005 Japanese film "Linda Linda Linda".
It was used in TV drama "Boardwalk Empire", first season.
Gerard Way is confirmed to have recorded the song for Kevin Smith's film 'Tusk'.
- Van Diemen's Land on songfacts.com
- Ramsay, Allan (1788). The Tea-table Miscellany, Or, A Collection of Choice Songs, Scots and English (Twelfth ed. ed.). Wilson. p. 170.
- "The Water Is Wide The History of a Folksong".
- See http://landofllostcontent.blogspot.com/2008/04/john-rutter-suite-for-strings.html
- "When I survey the wondrous Cross". Oremus.
- Common Praise. Canterbury Press. 2000.
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Recording by May Ip (in oggvorbis format) from a session in Wales in 1993, made available in the free downloads of May Ip's personal website.
- Sample lyrics and MIDI
- Recording of "The Water Is Wide" by the Beers Family at the 1963 Florida Folk Festival (made available for public by the State Archives of Florida)
- Lyrics and some information
- The Water is Wide (traditional, UK/USA; circa 1724) (video) – about history of the song
- Mirror (2010) sample
- Full lyrics of this song at MetroLyrics